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Trust me: Political Spying + Computers = Big Brother

By       Message Jeff Cohen     Permalink
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I know the issue of political spying -- and not just because my lawful, nonviolent activism got me spied on by local, state and federal "intelligence" agencies (whose spy files on me were unearthed through successful lawsuits and partly successful Freedom of Information requests). I also spent a dozen years as a journalist, researcher and ACLU lawyer investigating the spies.  

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There are four basic truths of political spying worth remembering in light of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's disclosures about phone record and Internet surveillance. These truths were obvious before computerized spying -- e.g. when the FBI's massive 1960s spy program led to harassment and violence against civil rights and antiwar activists -- and are more obvious, and perhaps more dangerous, now that digitized information on millions of us can be so easily vacuumed up.

1) False "facts" and assumptions CIRCULATE WILDLY. 

2) Political spying RARELY STAYS ON TARGET; spies tend to wander.

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3) Political "intelligence" is often the OPPOSITE OF ACTUAL INTELLIGENCE.

4) Big Brother has flourished under BOTH PARTIES.  


As a teenager in Detroit, I borrowed my dad's car to attend totally lawful gatherings sponsored by groups like People Against Racism (PAR) and Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) -- while agents of the Michigan State Police "Red Squad" hid outside and diligently recorded license plate numbers. Stacking false assumption upon false assumption, the bumbling spies linked my dad -- a non-political businessman -- to revolutionary communists. It was totally bogus as to him and me. Meet Sol Cohen, subversive file No. 358-552-619.

We received Sol Cohen's file in 1983 thanks to a successful First Amendment suit revealing that the "intelligence" unit had accumulated files on 38,000 Michigan residents -- including progressive politicians, consumer activists, union leaders -- with not one indicted for a crime. (This wasteful surveillance occurred while Detroit's violent crime rate was soaring.) 

What's worse than all the inaccuracies compiled on these thousands of law-abiding people -- the Michigan ACLU found countless examples of guilt by (parking lot) association -- is how far they can circulate. My dad's file showed that spy units in Canada  were linking him to PAR and VVAW, two groups he'd never heard of.

Nowadays, thanks to computerized spying, these false facts, suspicions and "connections" can be disseminated further, faster, and longer . . .  as in forever. Guilt by association linkages can be amplified. It's now guilt by algorithm or mathematical formula, says author Christopher Simpson. Operating with our phone records and Internet content, computers can run circles around any Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon champion.  

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No matter what group is designated "Public Enemy Number 1" -- whether "Communists" in the 1950s/60s or "terrorists" today -- most of those surveilled and harassed will not be in the targeted group.

Over the decades, the FBI used the "Communist" pretext to spy on huge numbers of Americans, only a tiny percentage of whom were Communists. Internal documents show that Director J. Edgar Hoover, a racial bigot, unleashed the FBI against civil rights activists after being fully briefed that actual American Communists had shrunk to a tiny number and had virtually no influence on the civil rights movement.

In Los Angeles, I was part of a successful suit against the LAPD intelligence division tasked with preventing "public disorder" -- a squad that squandered millions of dollars and voluminous files in the 1970s and 1980s reporting on the activities of such violence-prone rioters as Cesar Chavez, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Susan Sarandon, Jackson Browne, L.A.'s first black mayor and thousands of other nonviolent citizens.  

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Jeff Cohen is director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, where he is an associate professor of journalism. He founded the progressive media watch group FAIR in 1986.

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